August 31, 2010

The Social Constraints of Bettering The Web, Part I

I’ve recently been proud and inspired to see two new features land in the latest Firefox 4 betas: Web developers can now access the raw audio data in <audio> and <video> elements, and Firefox Panorama helps users manage their tabs.

In his excellent post Experiments with audio, conclusion, Dave Humphrey mentions the following Tweet from Joe Hewitt:

Bottom line: we can currently only move as fast as employees of browser makers can go, and our imagination is limited by theirs. @joehewitt

Dave goes on to say that not one person who did the audio work in Firefox 4 was an employee of the Mozilla corporation. He also mentions the following:

As much as Mozilla made it possible for me to experiment, they also made sure that what got accepted was of the highest quality. I haven't blogged about audio much over the past three months, mostly because we've been too busy getting the patch fixed up based on reviews. Before it could land we had to think about testing, security, JS performance, DOM manipulations, memory allocation, etc. To get this landed we needed lots of advice from various people, who have been generous with their time and knowledge.

As far as I can tell from my discussions with individuals in the trenches at Mountain View and throughout the Mozilla community, this process of getting advice and approval from various people is the biggest bottleneck of innovation in Firefox. Some of my talented coworkers created an excellent feature called account manager that won’t be making its way into Firefox 4 because the feature’s patches weren’t able to be reviewed in time for Firefox 4’s feature freeze. The core work was done, but the team couldn’t find the human resources to make sure it passed Firefox’s technical standards.

Other colleagues of mine are working on new built-in developer tools for Firefox, but as I understand it, there are only one or two people in the world who can review their patches and approve them for landing in Firefox’s code repository.

Within Mozilla, I see my coworkers vie for the attention of this tiny handful of gatekeepers. People in charge need convincing; the clever social engineer has a lot of power when it comes to navigating this landscape. I don’t know how much of this happens publicly via IRC, newsgroups, demos, blogs, bugs, wikis, or other backwaters of the Mozilla megaverse, as opposed to private conversations. I’m not sure how much the distinction matters, really; it’s just unfortunate that after working at Mozilla for two and a half years, I still have no idea how high-level decisions are made, who the gatekeepers are, and how they are to be convinced.

Yet I’m also sure that convincing the people who hold the keys to change a product used by hundreds of millions of people is non-trivial at any organization, and probably with good reason.

At a broad level, Hewitt’s tweet was about the notion that there exists some kind of bottleneck between people’s imagination and the ability of browser makers to keep up with it. Dave Humphrey pointed out that the bottleneck has nothing to do with paid employees of Mozilla, since anyone can contribute. My observations indicate that the biggest choke-point at Mozilla right now is a social problem that Clay Shirky might call fame: an imbalance between inbound attention and outbound attention. Lots of people want to get great features into Firefox, but a very limited set of people are actually able to pay attention to them and get those features out the door—much less determine which features are actually appropriate for the hundreds of millions the product is broadcast to.

That’s all I’ve got for now; I’ll write about some possible solutions to this in Part II.

© Atul Varma 2020